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Kyle Busch takes the blame for wrecking Martin Truex Jr.

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kyle Busch left Bristol Motor Speedway with no regrets about his team’s comeback effort but one major regret about an attempted pass that he misjudged by about 6 inches.

“I crashed the 78,” Busch said plainly about his Lap 432 contact that sent Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota hard into the wall. “That was my bad. Totally misjudged that one coming off the corner. I clipped him there and sent him for a ride.

“He knows that wasn’t intentional at all. We’ve worked really, really, really, really good together these last two to three years, so that shouldn’t ruin anything between us.”

Truex was running second when the crash occurred. He angrily threw his HANS device and kicked the car after coming up short of winning his first short-track race in NASCAR’s premier series but had cooled down after a care center visit.

“(Busch) probably didn’t obviously do it on purpose, but it’s hard Bristol racing,” Truex said. “Probably could’ve shown a little bit more patience. He was a lot faster than me at that point in time. He just caught me and probably another lap or so he would’ve went right by. Half his fault, half my fault for following (leader Clint Bowyer) so long. I should’ve knocked his butt out of the way because he held me up for 15-20 laps and burnt my front tires off screwing with him. Played too nice and got the crappy end of the stick.”

Busch and Truex are de-facto teammates because they are closely aligned through their affiliations with Toyota Racing Development, and this was the second major tangle between the two teams over the past two seasons. Last July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Busch and Truex wrecked while racing for the lead, and an altercation between their teams led to the suspensions of two Furniture Row Racing pit crew members.

Adam Stevens, crew chief for Busch, said he hadn’t talked with Cole Pearn, crew chief for Truex but said the Indianapolis incident “never crept into my mind all night.

“I would assume they’re upset,” Stevens said. “They got wrecked out of a race. I’d be upset. That’s all there is to it.”

Busch said no damage control would be necessary.

“Cole’s really cool, Martin’s really cool,” he said. “I think they’re fine. Maybe I’ll send them a ‘Sorry’ cake to the Denver shop for the guys having to work extra. They’ll probably throw that (car) away anyways, but it ruined their day of being able to get a win or even a second.”

It didn’t ruin the day for Busch despite having endured a wild chain of events in Saturday’s 500-lap race. His No. 18 Toyota slipped out of the traction compound and spun while running the inside lane on the third lap, causing a 15-car crash.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver fell two laps down, but his team managed a repair job that allowed him to climb back into the top five in the final 100 laps.

That was just me and this team and never giving up and being able to drive up through the field like that,” Busch said.

The damage, though, prevented his team from filling his fuel tank swiftly, which cost Busch several spots in the pits on every stop. That was costly on a restart with 23 laps remaining, and he spun after getting sandwiched between the cars of Jimmie Johnson and Chris Buescher.

“We had a shot to come back there and win the race realistically,” Busch said. “We certainly were going to way overachieve, but we just didn’t get to.”

“I’m proud of the effort,” Stevens said. “I’m proud of the car we put on the racetrack. Had we been able to put fuel in it, in a timely manner, it would have been a whole different race. … Hard to win a race when you’ve got to pass every car on the lead lap every run. Frustrating, but it shows what the team is capable of, I guess.”

Kyle Larson seeks turnaround at ‘by far my favorite racetrack’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – With his team in a mini-slump in midsummer, Kyle Larson is back in his happy place, and the Chip Ganassi Racing driver wouldn’t mind returning more often.

“I love racing here,” Larson said Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I wish we could race here weekly. I think our sport would be in a good spot if we could.

“I didn’t watch a ton of NASCAR growing up, but I’d never miss a Bristol race. If you were to ask me what Bristol race stands out, I couldn’t tell you. I just loved watching Bristol. It was always a lot of fun. Ever since they added the progressive banking, it’s been a lot better, too, as far as style of racing goes. It’s by far my favorite NASCAR track.”

The love of Bristol grew only stronger Friday night as he won the Food City 300 and scored his first victory in 18 Cup and Xfinity starts at the 0.533-mile oval.

Larson will be trying for his first win in NASCAR’s premier series at the track – and his first in Cup this season – while starting from the pole position in tonight’s race.

A victory would be a welcome result for Larson’s team, which is virtually locked into the playoffs but has only two top 10s in six races since his memorable runner-up finish to Kyle Busch at Chicagoland Speedway.

While Chevrolet teams Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing seem to have gotten faster in recent weeks, Larson’s No. 42 Camaro seems to have tailed off slightly after easily being the best Chevy in the first half of the season.

“I don’t know where we might be off,” he said. “Nobody really honestly knows where other teams have gotten speed from, so we’re working on all areas, really, I’m pretty sure, to try and get faster. We have moments where we’re really fast, but I would say we’re just a little inconsistent from track to track.

“You look at last year, we were good everywhere. This year, we’re good at our good tracks. Not as good at the tracks that we have struggled at years prior.”

But what about starting and finishing 17th last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, where he won three consecutive races from 2016-17?

A loose wheel after his first pit stop mired Larson in traffic and out of sequence, and then contact on a restart hampered into using an older set of tires for the last run of the race.

“It just snowballed into a bad run where I felt like we were going to have a shot to run top 3 or 5, but it just doesn’t show for it, and other people look at it as we just ran bad all day,” he said. “If you look at lap times, we were running some of the fastest laps of the race, just buried in traffic. I feel like we’re not that bad. We just had a little bit of a bad luck that cost us finishes we deserved the last few weeks.”

The urgency to maximize his speed stems more from being well positioned in the playoffs than making the 16-driver field. Larson is one of three provisionally qualified who have no playoff points yet.

“That part is a little frustrating,” he said. “It makes you more nervous when it comes to the playoffs, but the good thing is there’s been three guys taking up all the playoff points, so the other ones don’t have a whole lot, either, but every point matters.

“You look at it as you need to win some stages and win a race, but I also view Bristol as being my best opportunity to get some playoff points. I feel like we can win both stages and win the race. Not easily but this is our best shot. That five to seven points would be huge.”

And after getting bumped from the lead by race winner Kyle Busch at Bristol in April, Larson has earned some leeway in playing rough – not that he plans to use it.

He prefers the “options” afforded by the 2007 addition of progressive banking (which was retrofitted in 2012 in a manner that often makes the top groove the fastest).

“If there was progressive banking 20 years ago, the racing would have been a lot better back then,” he said. “I’m not a fan of the bump and run. I’m just a fan of Bristol.

“I’d much rather see two to three wide racing at Bristol than single file. I think the racing is really good, and that’s why I love coming here to race.”

Chase Elliott hopes to follow Dale Earnhardt Jr. in another way

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Chase Elliott soon will inherit Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s official mantle as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, and he hopes to eventually acquire an ancillary skill of that immense sway, too.

As the first national commercial campaign to solely feature the No. 9 Chevrolet driver for Mountain Dew rolls out during tonight’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Elliott is hoping he can channel the comfort that Earnhardt developed in front of the camera during more than two decades as a high-profile endorser and spokesman who was voted Most Popular Driver from 2003-17.

“I think that’s one thing that Dale has gotten really good at it is his acting in commercials,” Elliott said Friday during the taping of a NASCAR on NBC Podcast that will air next week. “He has done a really good job of just going into those situations and just not caring as much.

“That’s how you have to be. If you go in there, and you’re really timid, it’s going to show on camera, and I’m certainly not to the level that he’s at. I’m not an actor. Acting is not my favorite thing to do by any means. I think it’s something I certainly would love to get better at, shooting these 30-second, 60-second commercials can help.”

Though Elliott is the only driver in the new spot, he has no speaking lines, which is probably how he prefers it because he hasn’t translated his low-key personality into carrying a scene.

“The best thing they can do is not have me act a whole lot,” Elliott, 22, said with a laugh. “So maybe one day I’ll get better at it. For now, that’s what it’s going to have to be.

“I really didn’t have to do a whole lot of acting in this spot, which is great. Those are the kind that typically turn out the best when you don’t have to put on a fake face or whatever to do it. From my end, it’s very laid back, and I think people will see that.”

Though his personality also can be reserved and introspective, Earnhardt has grown at ease with comedic delivery and seeming natural in off-kilter situations.

“He’s done such a good job with that, it’s been fun to watch,” said Elliott, who worked with Earnhardt in a few commercials while driving for JR Motorsports from 2014-15. “Luckily, I’ve had a chance to do a couple of productions with him and kind of see how he goes about it, and I think there’s something to be learned there.”

The main takeaway is that being true to one’s self is the easiest way to come across well because “if you go into those situations being uncomfortable, it’s not going to look good on camera,” Elliott said.

In the second half of his Cup career before joining NBC Sports Group as an analyst, Earnhardt took ownership of his likeness and became more assertive and selective as a brand endorser.

With an election as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver seeming a virtual lock starting this season, Elliott also would like to “have a little more say-so” in how his popularity is leveraged by sponsors in the future.

“Hopefully and that’s something you can earn over time, but you can’t come in demanding, ‘Hey, I’m doing this, I’m not doing this,’” Elliott said. “You have to be respectful of that and understand what they want vs. what I want and try to balance the two out.

“Yeah, I think our partners have been receptive and listened, and they see the person that I am, and I’m not a real loud individual in general. So I think they see that. That does make it difficult to do commercials and things, just because it’s hard to express that on camera. We’ve kind of found ways to do that.”

During the rest of the podcast, Elliott also discussed:

–The wisdom of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart and the varying styles of sports leadership;

–The email with tips for racing Road America that he sent his father, Bill, as he prepares for his first NASCAR race in six years next weekend;

–The importance of finding another gear with the No. 9 when the playoffs begin next month.

The episode will be available Wednesday wherever you download podcasts.

Tonight’s Cup race at Bristol: EARLIER start time, lineup and more

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NASCAR has moved up the start of Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway by an hour because of inclement weather.

Here is the key info for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Johnny Morris, Bill Dance and Dale Hall will give the command to start engines at 6:40 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 6:46 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the 0.533-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 10 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 4:30 p.m. Driver introductions are at 5:50 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: The Motor Racing Outreach children’s choir will perform the anthem at 6:31 p.m.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will broadcast the race beginning at 5 p.m. with NASCAR America and Countdown to Green starting at 6 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 6 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will have PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for scattered thunderstorms with a high of 79 degrees and a 48 percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Kyle Busch snatched the lead from pole-sitter Erik Jones and led the final 56 laps for the win.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Martin Truex Jr. on his uncertain future: ‘I’m starting to hear rumors’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – The defending champion of NASCAR’s premier series is uncertain if he will return to the team next season.

“That’s hard to put a number on, honestly,” Martin Truex Jr. said when asked Friday to estimate a percentage of the likelihood he will drive for Furniture Row Racing next season. “I really don’t know. I think in another week or two I’ll have a better answer for you, a better percentage.

“Right now, we need sponsorship. That’s as simple as it gets. It’s hard to say. Is there a 50 percent chance we get that in the next couple of weeks? Or is there a 100 percent chance. Or is there 2 percent? I don’t know. I can tell you that everything really is based upon that.”

With Kurt Busch’s No. 41 ride at Stewart-Haas Racing unfilled for next year and Kasey Kahne’s retirement opening another seat, the garage chatter is growing louder about the annual spinning carousel of drivers heading to new teams. The contract statuses of Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman also are murky for 2019.

Even though Truex won his first Cup title last year with a season-high eight victories and has four wins this year with Barney Visser’s No. 78 Toyota, he acknowledges his name is in the mix.

“I’m starting to hear rumors,” he said. “That’s kind of how it works in this sport. I’ve been in this position before. I’ve got a great team. Barney has done a lot for my career. It’s something we all want to keep going and just need a little bit of time to let the dominoes fall into place and see if we can keep it going. And if not, I have to figure it out from there.”

Truex is in his fifth season with Furniture Row Racing. The team is trying to plug a sponsorship hole left by 5 hour Energy, which is exiting after being a co-primary sponsor for 30 Cup races this season. The company’s departure was announced a month ago with the team in the throes of signing Truex to an extension.

Last season, Furniture Row Racing overcame a season of adversity, including the death of a team member and a heart attack for Visser. Truex said the team has learned to focus through distractions.

“The biggest thing for us as a group (is) we’ve kind of been in this situation before,” he said. “Really the past couple of seasons, we’ve been at a tipping point at some point in time, and we’ve been just been able to focus on doing our jobs.

“We always feel like that at the end of the day, if we do our jobs and we do them well, and we’re winning races, that’s our best opportunity to keep things going the way they are. I think that’s not going to change. That’s what we have to do. The commitments people made to us are through the end of the season. No matter what happens, this is a professional sport, and we need to hold up our end of the deal, and the guys understand that. We’re going to fight as hard as we can no matter what next year looks like and try to repeat what we did last year.”